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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What was a Canadian first for the University of Toronto in the activist sixties?

Answer The first gay and lesbian group on any Canadian campus was formed: the University of Toronto Homophile Association.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

Unlike the apolitical "silent generation" of students of the 1950s, students in the 1960s on the whole were vocal, active, and involved in a wide range of issues. Student leaders such as Bob Rae, a member of the Commission on University Government, established in 1968, and later the premier of Ontario, and Steven Langdon, the president of the Students' Administrative Council and later an NDP member of parliament, wanted to reform the University of Toronto in particular and universities generally.

"There is an ugly undercurrent, deep and irrational."

Others, such as Andrew Wernick, a member of the far-left Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and now a professor of sociology at Trent University, and William Schabas, also a member of SDS and now director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, wanted more fundamental, radical changes in society and the universities.

President Bissell addressing sit-in

President Claude Bissell's strategy was to work closely with the former group and try to prevent their alignment with the more extreme students. The University of California at Berkeley had experienced a major disturbance in 1964, and universities throughout the world were anticipating problems. After meeting some student leaders in the spring of 1965, Bissell noted in his diary, "There is an ugly undercurrent, deep and irrational."

There were many reasons why students became politically active at universities throughout the world in the second half of the 1960s. The American civil rights movement played a part, as did - particularly in Canada - the nuclear disarmament campaign. But the Vietnam war was probably the most important factor. "No political event," wrote Bob Rae in his autobiography, "so galvanized opinion on the campus as the Vietnam war." The universities, many activist students felt, were part of the so-called military-industrial complex that supported the war. The more extreme students wanted to "liberate" the university from its influence. The many young men who came to Canada to avoid the American draft also contributed to the politically charged atmosphere at universities.

Viet Nam war protest
A protest against the Vietnam war in front of Convocation Hall in 1965, when Adlai Stevenson, the United States ambassador to the United nations, received an honorary degree

Many students during the decade rejected parental and other authority, and the universities were thought to be authoritarian institutions. The permissiveness that came with the birth control pill as well as the drug culture contributed to this defiance of authority. The 1960s saw the creation of Rochdale College on Bloor Street, a large high-rise self-governing student residence, officially unconnected with the university, but where many students and staff lived. Rochdale attempted alternative forms of teaching and learning, and some of the reform ideas concerning the University of Toronto emanated from the "college."

At the end of the decade, another lifestyle issue, sexual orientation, became the subject of discussion and active organization on the campus. In the fall of 1969, after the liberalization of the criminal code, the first gay and lesbian group in Toronto and on any Canadian campus - the University of Toronto Homophile Association - was formed. Jearld Moldenhauer, a research assistant in the faculty of medicine who would later establish the Glad Day Bookstore and help found the gay liberation magazine The Body Politic, placed a four-line classified advertisement in the Varsity, asking others to join in setting up an organization. The first meeting drew 16 people - 15 men and 1 woman.

"It was soon spawning, activist development beyond the campus."

"In little more than a year," political science professor David Rayside has written, "the group, under its first president Charlie Hill, a graduate student in art history and later a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, had established a significant community profile in and beyond the City of Toronto, challenging discrimination in law, in policing, and other arenas… It was soon spawning," Rayside went on to state, "activist development beyond the campus."

Two decades later, Rayside himself would organize the Committee on Homophobia on the campus, and ten years after that he would help introduce a sexual diversity studies program at University College.

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